September 7, 2021

As the Covid-19 pandemic grinds past the 18-month mark, Australians would be justified in asking: what is the point of Australia? This question is not intended to be facetious or provocative: Australia no longer seems to function like a country and Australian citizenship has been largely drained of legal and practical meaning.

Thousands of Australian citizens remain stranded abroad, unable to return due to strict caps on spots in hotel quarantine, which are set by state governments. Frequent domestic border closures — also decided by state governments — have effectively fragmented Australia into eight separate countries. Last month, Australians were treated to the surreal spectacle of the Australian Defence Force patrolling the border between Queensland and New South Wales.

Across the country, citizens have discovered that reserve powers are largely the prerogative of state governments, and are being exercised in ways that routinely exclude other states’ residents, as if they were foreign nationals. For example, Western Australia now requires that people living in New South Wales have at least one shot of the Covid vaccine to enter the state. In one of the most callous examples of exclusionary state politics in practice, last year the Queensland government denied a 14-year-old double-lung transplant patient from NSW access to his specialist doctor, declaring that Queensland hospitals were for Queenslanders.

Indeed, throughout the pandemic, it seems that states’ rights have trumped citizens’ rights — while at the same time reducing federal government to a feckless bystander.

How quickly things change. Few would have predicted that the Australian federation would suffer from such deep fragmentation before the pandemic. After all, the trend for decades had gone in exactly the opposite direction, towards greater centralisation of power at the federal level. Australia’s federalism was long viewed by political scientists as one of the world’s most “vertically imbalanced”; the Commonwealth has controlled around 80% of tax revenue since World War II, making Australia’s states reliant on federal transfers for half their budgets.

Federal governments used this leverage to introduce greater controls over how the states spend their money, by introducing a host of national schemes that promised funding to the states which agreed to undertake reforms. In some cases, such as in the National Disability Insurance Scheme initiated in 2013, states were relieved of their responsibility for disability care altogether, in favour of private and non-profit service-providers.

But when the pandemic struck in March 2020, state governments moved swiftly into the driver’s seat. Harnessing emergency powers few realised they possessed, they imposed society-wide lockdowns and closed internal borders. Although the constitution accords responsibility over quarantine and international borders to the federal government, lack of federal preparedness saw state governments assume full control over the hotel quarantine system, which was hastily established over one weekend. Since hotel quarantine capacity determines the number of weekly international arrivals into Australia, the states in effect have de facto control over international borders.

Initially, many were thrilled to see state governments taking strong action, especially as Prime Minister Scott Morrison was slow to act in the face of the pandemic. And premiers have been rewarded for this by remarkable levels of popular support, especially when they succeeded in keeping Covid out of their states. The Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and Western Australian Premier, Mark McGowan, were both easily returned to government in their respective state elections. In McGowan’s case, re-election was secured by a margin rarely observed in free and fair democratic polls.

Morrison, meanwhile, despite initially enjoying high levels of public approval, has seen his popularity plunge to negative territory, as lockdowns and border closures sparked by the Delta variant have again handed the initiative to the states. Aware of the potential for incoherence and discord within the federation, he established a National Cabinet in March last year as a platform for federal and state leaders to coordinate policy directly. The National Cabinet was initially heralded a success, with the nationally coordinated lockdown of March-May 2020 eliminating community transmission in Australia. However, beneath the veneer of cooperation, there was squabbling and petty tribalism.

There were, for example, no national standards developed, so each state designed its own hotel quarantine system differently. When these systems failed, rather than learn from each other’s mistakes, states preferred to take pot shots at each other about whose Covid response was best.

The repercussions of this petulance soon became clear. In Melbourne, the capital of Victoria, poorly trained and precariously employed security guards caught Covid from returned travellers and then spread it in the community, sparking the state’s second wave last winter, resulting in more than 19,000 cases and 800 deaths, as well as a 112-day lockdown.

Victoria tried to redress these problems by establishing a centralised agency for managing hotel quarantine, but in June a leak from NSW sparked another wave of infections, which spread to other states and even New Zealand, resulting in more lockdowns. The outbreak was caused by an unvaccinated driver without the correct PPE transporting airline crew from the airport to the quarantine hotel. While NSW requires all drivers to be vaccinated and wear a mask, compliance and enforcement was left to the private transport companies. Once again, the failure to learn from best practice in other parts of the country had disastrous consequences.

As the pandemic has worn on, these skirmishes have erupted into open warfare, exacerbating the formidable challenge of developing and implementing an exit strategy from lockdown. Take the federal government’s recently proposed four-phase plan for reopening borders and ending restrictions. Based on Doherty Institute modelling, it anticipates reopening to be safe enough when 80% of the eligible adult population are fully vaccinated. Although initially approved in National Cabinet, some states almost immediately began to pull away.

The was mainly due to the emergence of two Australias. The first, which includes the two most populous states, New South Wales and Victoria, has suffered major outbreaks and long lockdowns. Consequently, they have abandoned “Zero Covid” strategies and accepted that reopening will involve some risk of the virus’ spread and mortalities.

The second group, however, led by Queensland and WA, has so far managed to avoid major outbreaks thanks to border closures and snap lockdowns. Although indicating basic support for vaccination as a way out of isolation, their premiers have nonetheless repeatedly raised the threshold for reopening beyond the figures suggested in the Doherty model.

Palaszczuk, for example, recently argued that reopening should only occur after children younger than 12 were vaccinated. This is despite the fact that no country in the world has vaccinated under-12s, no vaccines are currently approved for this age group and their risk of serious illness is vanishingly low. Yet McGowan concurred, and wondered aloud why the federal government would want to “infect” WA. Although Palaszczuk backtracked a few days later, it is clear that reopening Australia, internally and internationally, will be fraught and challenged at every step, and finding a unified position among the federal and state governments will be difficult, if not impossible.

Australia’s federation is thus facing one of the biggest challenges in its history. Australia’s hodgepodge of state-based systems and responses, combined with endless acrimony and buck-passing, contrasts poorly with New Zealand’s more coherent “whole-of-government” approach, even though both countries are effectively following the same elimination strategy. If there’s one lesson for Australia in the past eighteen months, it’s surely that a greater consolidation of powers within the federal government is necessary for ensuring a unified, efficient and effective national response.

Ironically, however, it is likely this crisis will likely have the opposite effect, further entrenching the fragmentation of Australia’s federation, guaranteeing the same problems will recur in future crises. For state governments and their residents will not forget where reserve powers are truly located, and that they may be exercised with little regard for national agendas or citizenship rights.

In the absence of constitutional reform or some other change within Australian federalism, the temptation in future crises will always be for states to go it alone. So, what is the point of Australia? With 54% of WA residents in a recent survey declaring themselves “Western Australians” first rather than Australians, perhaps it is time we stop taking the answer for granted.